How climate became a hot topic in Germany’s election

Exploring why the climate crisis is increasingly central in politics

by Yiyao Yang

Flag reading “Climate Justice Now” in front of the German Parliament at Fridays for Future Climate Strike on 24th September

Never before in history have climate discourses been so central upon Germany’s election stage. Yet, on the 26th of September, the German public went to the polling stations to elect their next political party - and the future of our planet was at the forefront of many voters’ minds. Although there is still no decisive winner, the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD) gained the most votes, and now coalition negotiations have begun. Already we can see how Germany’s political landscape is being redefined - and the impact this decisive election may have upon climate politics across Europe and the world.

Fridays for Future

This election, activist groups had a greater influence than ever before. On Friday 24th September, two days before election day, 100,000 people in Berlin went on strike as part of the global climate strike organised by Fridays for Future. Activist Greta Thunberg addressed the public at the rally in front of the German parliament: "Germany is the fourth biggest emitter of CO2 in history. The world leaders promise green investment as a vague and distant target to say that they are taking climate action."

Protesters folding CDU leader Armin Laschet Balloon; Protester at Fridays for Future Climate Strike on 24th September

"I think fighting for justice of all kinds is just like fighting for climate justice."

The strike organizer said that the demonstration was not meant to be a message to the German voters. However, the impact of this vigorous climate demonstration with slogans demanding awareness of the climate crisis or criticizing politicians - whilst Sunday’s vote played upon everyone’s minds - told a different story.

The strike demanded that climate justice is part of every school's curriculum. A woman holding the slogan "destroy gender roles, not the planet" spoke to the reporter, "I am not an NGO worker. I am not a non-binary person. But I think fighting for justice of all kinds is just like fighting for climate justice."

From the Voters’ Mouths

On Sunday, 26th September, voters across Germany cast their ballots. According to a study by Infratest Dimap, environment and climate rank as the most important political problem in Germany, followed by immigration. Some voters spoke of their own concerns regarding the party they voted for.

Source: Infratest dimap DeutschlandTREND, Graph: Euronews

A Berlin-born IT consultant told the reporter, "I am not sure yet who is getting my vote. I only know which party I won't vote for. I'm not impressed by either party."

The Green’s manifesto states that they will gradually reduce the number of short-haul flights by expanding the rail network. The interviewee mentions that he is not in favor of the Greens as he thinks flight ticket prices will rise if the Greens gain power. “The CDU has been in power for 16 years. It’s easy for business and politicians to collude if a party remains in power for too long, " he adds.

"I want to show people that as a person of color and a migrant, I can vote as a German person."

Map Hieu,42, a social worker living in Dortmund, voted by post as he was traveling. "Normally, I like being present at the polling station as I want to show people that as a person of color and a migrant, I can vote as a German person."

"I stood between the Left and the Greens but finally voted for the Greens,"

he says. "I want to give the Greens power because they can work with all parties in any case."

A polling station in Mitte, Berlin

Results, Reaction and Future Action

The results of the vote saw the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) narrowly winning with 25.7% of the vote. Merkel's conservative CDU/CSU garnered 24.1%, which is the worst record in its 70-year history. The Greens made history with almost 15% of the vote. The Greens and the FDP are the kingmakers: those who have the power to form a coalition. The far-right AfD and the Left both​​ lost prominent status in parliament.

Source: Federal Returning Office

This new parliament is the most diverse one ever: out of 735 seats, around one-third are women, and the Greens have the highest female representation with 58%. Tessa Ganserer and Nyke Slawik, two transgender women politicians, and Awet Tesfaiesus, the first African Black woman joining the parliament, are all from the Green party. 83 members with migration backgrounds were elected. However, this percentage (11.3%) is still lower than the percentage of the total German population with migration backgrounds - 26%.

Does the Green party’s success mean a positive future for climate politics in Germany? That depends on who you ask. Some members of the Greens say the party underperformed, and climate activists blame them for not bringing about enough change. Simultaneously, other Germans fear the party is too radical.

Source: Federal Returning Office

“The Greens underestimated that discursive hegemony might not translate into very big electoral gains,” said Malte Spielmann, a German Green Party member who campaigned during this and past elections. “What is clear so far is that the Greens managed to keep their disputes internal and they will likely succeed in doing so a bit longer.”

"I am shocked that the Greens could secure no substantial gains."

The spokesperson of hunger strike climate activists in Berlin told the reporter that "I am absolutely disappointed by the election results. After the climate movement has put so much energy into making the public aware of the danger of the climate crisis over the past years, I am shocked that the Greens could secure no substantial gains. Also, though the Greens are slightly better than other parties in climate politics, even their program is not nearly sufficient to stop the climate crisis. This is why we need to organize pressure from the streets in the form of demonstrations and civil disobedience to save this planet."

The Green Party of the UK is calling on significant change of the UK government to announce a carbon tax at the COP26 summit, taking place in Glasgow in two weeks’ time. Although Germany and the UK have different electoral systems, the rise of the Green parties shares some similarities and common dilemmas. In an analysis from the BBC last May, Scott Cato, a British Green politician, economist, and activist, points out that the prevalence of the climate crisis alongside the public’s disillusionment with the Labour Party, give the Green party a distinctive edge.

"The dynamics and intricacies of COP negotiation will be heightened this year."

Ahead of COP26 in the UK, Alok Sharma has called on every country to announce plans to cut their emissions to net-zero by the middle of the century. The dynamics and intricacies of COP negotiation will be heightened this year, as world leaders work together to find solutions to combat the imminent climate crisis threatening our planet.

Photos credit: Yiyao Yang.

Yiyao Yang is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. She writes about politics, contemporary art, and climate change. She is a fellow reporter with Climate Tracker at COP26.